Rather than take French or Spanish, I took Latin for four years in high school. I loved it, but people would always ask me why I was learning a “dead” language. You’re never going to speak Latin, they would tell me. Why learn it?
I could always name plenty of reasons. The English language relies on Latin words and conventions (which definitely came in handy on the SAT Language Arts questions!). Latin phrases are found in the medical field, on our currency and even in the Harry Potter books. Although no one formally speaks the language, Latin is far from gone.
Unfortunately, other languages are not as lucky as Latin: they’re in danger of vanishing completely.
It may seem strange to think about a language dying out, but approximately two languages disappear every month. There are about 7,000 languages spoken on Earth, and if they keep dying out at this rate, more than half of them will disappear by the end of this century.
Luckily, the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project strives to protect endangered languages from fading away.
National Geographic, in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, identifies language hotspots: locations with “the most unique, poorly understood or threatened indigenous languages.” They work with the people who live in these hotspots to preserve their languages and cultures.
It’s imperative to preserve languages to keep the diverse cultures of the planet alive. If languages disappear, so does an entire culture and evidence of how we as humans communicate.
The Enduring Voices Project preserves languages through its Talking Dictionaries. It doesn’t just document endangered languages; it preserves them so people around the world and far in the future can hear. The interface is simple: you choose a language, type in a word or phrase and can hear it spoken back to you in the language you chose. This project gives people the chance to “hear some of the most little-known sounds of human speech.”
With enough dedication to preserving language and culture, more languages and cultures will survive extinction. Who knows—maybe they’ll even be as widely studied as Latin one day.
Did You Know?
Sperm whales have their own languages. They communicate in a series of clicks called codas, and different pods of whales use different dialects. Whales that “speak the same language” travel together, proving to scientists that sperm whales have their own cultures.
Photo Credit: Ancient Tamil Script